Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Antarctica - Part I

(Part I of Vinson Massif climb, in Antarctica)

Romi and Levi taking a break
after a gruelling steep climb (Dec2011).
Antarctica! The name alone stirs thoughts of excitement, awe or wonder, or for some - probably a thought of some scary remote cold lonely and lifeless continent. For us adventurers – we think of great explorations, of a special breed of individuals who spend their lives braving the unknown and surviving storms in some remote cold desolate hell!

Think Amundsen! Scott! Or even Shackelton!

Now, repeat after me: “I’m going to Antarctica!” The thoughts and emotions will be completely different!

For me, it was a mixture of anxiety and excitement - but obviously more on the positive side of the spectrum. It was a very rare chance to finally set foot on the continent! To finally see the “white beauty” - images that I only imagined or see in pictures. And to finally experience the ICE, both the good and bad!

Antarctica is the fifth largest continent on Earth, it has so much ice that if all of it melts, the global sea level will rise by ~200ft - submerging so many coastal cities and towns. “Good bye Boracay!”

Antarctica is thickly covered by ice that a mere 2% of rocky surface is exposed. The coldest temperature of -89C was recorded here, as well as the strongest “Katabatic’ wind of 170mph. But behind all of these seemingly scary details – it’s a cold iced land of SPECTACULAR BEAUTY. Most of the images I’ve seen in books and magazines are just awe-inspiring – enough alone reason why one should visit this place at least once in his or her lifetime.

The “anti-Arctic” was the last continent in my ‘continent bucket list’ and I was obviously EAGER to step foot on its Ice. I was eager to see the endless plateau leading to the South Pole, thrilled to be walking alongside giant Emperor Penguins, or visit the various research stations scattered across the continent, or even cruise the Southern Ocean and see magnificent whales - and almost forgot why I was going there in the first place.

Ah… the end of my 7 summits journey – I need to climb the highest mountain in Antarctica!!

Vinson Massif stands ~16,066ft and is the tallest mountain on the ICE.

Unfortunately for me, the Penguins live very far away, and the South Pole is a thousand kilometers from the landing point. Hopping from one spot to another has a minimum airplane price tag of ~20,000US$. Wow! That’s almost the cost of two 8000m peak expeditions. :) And in Beer-speak, that’s like 24,000 bottles of Pilsen!

Knowing the dangers of cold and killer winds – my primary focused was securing the best available gears and equipment. And since no one can just ‘show up’ in a continent-with-no- country – I’d need an outfitter to help me with logistics and the plane ride. This last item alone could easily cost anyone some 35,000 US$!

In my arsenal, I’d bring a new Himalayan suit from my loyal supporter The North Face, among other cold hell battle gear. My old and overly used yellow TNF Himalayan suit no longer suited my comfort needs – to properly “do number 2 with ease”. The new one has crescent-shape zip-able opening to expose one’s nice butt unlike the old model which has a zip-down-the-‘crack’ type. I also planned to bring two big down mitts in this trip learning from my Alaskan climb where I lost one piece with no back-up, and in Everest where my mitts got frozen solid from the moisture I generated inside the mitts.

I also acquired a snow shoes thinking that the long approach to low-camp will necessitate it – copying Denali approach. I initially checked this item with my outfitter who said nothing against it and later learned that I wouldn’t need it at all due to little snow accumulation on the Ice. ARGH!! I just wasted a few precious hundred $ from my limited sponsor funds!

Some climbers suggested that Vinson is like 2/3rds of Denali - in terms of difficulty, altitude, supply requirement and the like. That somehow relieved me. Except that I sort of trained for Denali by an expensive trip in Nepal – something that I could no longer afford for Vinson given time and money constraint. As alternative to Nepal - I went to Baguio for a 3day weighted walk, while trying to shop or ogle at beautiful women around.

My partner-in-crime for this climb would be the same one in Carstnesz – Levi.

He was more apprehensive of a climb on cold snow and ice compared to Carstensz where he was on his element. So he trained hard doing so many long runs and bike and races and God knows what else. While I hesitantly busy myself with media interviews and meetings with sponsors while trying to catch up on office work, or prepare for my month-long leave. I only have my Baguio trip as my ‘decent-enough’ semi-training – and I thought - I JUST NEED TO BE LUCKY!

I didn’t like how I prepared for Vinson, but by time constraints and needs to accommodate extra requirements for my office work, media and sponsors – I was forced to ‘make do’. It was like – my expedition and its usual challenges already started long before I took my flight out.

Soon the day came, and my 2-man team boarded our plane first to Singapore, then US and finally to Santiago, Chile. In Singapore – we met an old friend, Jojo – a UP Mountaineer.

In his effort to boost our morale, he tried to get us drunk by free-flowing beer. Soon Levi and I, or maybe just Levi - started failing to differentiate a beautiful boy-girl from a real girl. We realized that we had enough beer and so we retired soon. Haha!

We boarded our next plane and flew endlessly around the world to get to the farthest capital city from Manila - - Santiago.

“Hola Amigos!”

By another long flight we finally reached our jump-off city of Punta Arenas, our gateway to Antarctica.

It was funny riding the taxi cab. Two men, with humungous expedition bags don’t exactly fit a small 5-seater sedan. The cab driver didn’t seem to mind it, just happy enough to have a tourist visiting a deserted city of Arenas during a cold Christmas season.

I was glad that at least we were in a country where I could speak survival Spanish.

I spoke utal-utal and ‘un poco’ Spanish but enough to understand someone a little, or make my message understood. Levi was somehow in awe having witnessed how I talked in limited Bahasa Indonesia several months back in Papua, and there in Chile - Spanish! He said he didn’t speak any other language, except maybe the ‘language of love’. Hahaha!

We arrive a day before Christmas and Punta Arenas was sadly a ghost town! “Where are the party-going bonita Chilenas that we read about?!?!”

In our stroll around town, looking for a few still-open bars to celebrate Christmas – we met a Pinoy group who were also in this desolate place for vacation. We learned that even Santiago was a ghost city – Chileans were all spending time at home and not lingering city bars and restaurants. Sad!

We spent a cold Christmas with our fellow Pinoys drinking cold beer. Later, the same group would help us tour around Santiago and even provided us with good accommodation. “Gracias Amigos!”

After Christmas, Punta Arenas started to become livelier. Like ants after a big rain, people just started showing up, busying their days walking about or manning their shops and restos.

Soon my own expedition team arrived, among a hundred other climbers and visitors.

I first met Omar – an Egyptian national who was doing his 6th of the 7 summits, by climbing Vinson. If he summits Vinson and his next, Denali – he’d be the first Egyptian to complete the 7 summits. We were both excited as we were doing exactly the same thing. ;)

All other three members were Americans. Filthy rich, self-funded American climbers. :)

We got a trip briefing from our expedition leader and guide – Mike Ryman from Mountain Madness. A medium-built climbing instructor and guide who was obviously strong and highly experienced. He actually looked humble and somewhat reserved which I find surprising and atypical. I later concluded that his second role as the program marketing guy for Madness made him better in people relationship, more suitable for me versus “hard core” guides.

Our guide #2, the hard-core version, was already on the Ice guiding another team.

We also had a wide-audience briefing from our main logistics provider - ALE (Antarctic Logistics and Expedition)– getting very useful information from the presentation. There were the usual you-could-die risk discussions, and helpful bits on environment conservation.

I saw a group of Southeast Asian-looking climbers – which I thought was rare. From the flags stitched in their uniforms – I instantly concluded that they were Indonesians. In Papua, I met a guy who was aiming for First Indonesian 7 Summits – and heard from him about two teams gunning for the same record. The group was one of the two teams.

I quickly greeted some of them with the familiar Indonesian phrase “Apa Kabbar” – or how are you…

They were also surprised to see Malay Asians. I later learned that the other group of Indo climbers was able to complete Indonesia’s first recognized 7 Summits – around 5 months before I was doing my 7th! The Indos got the 2nd Southeast Asian ranking completing it in 2011 – preceded by Singapore (Swee Chiow completed his 7 Summits in 2000). Pinoy will be officially the 3rd in SE Asia to complete 7 Summits.

(to be continued)

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